Sometimes Your Best Question Is Silence

Excerpted with permission from, CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP: How to Transform Good Intentions into Great Performance” by  Dr. Rodger Dean Duncan

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Sometimes Your Best Question Is Silence

Some people seem to operate under the misconception that to “listen” is merely to allow the other person to talk while you prepare your response. Real dialogue requires much more.

First, some important points on “empathy.” Empathy is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy involves commiseration, agreement, or a shared feeling. Empathy is more about appreciation and understanding. Understanding between and among the participants is a critical goal of dialogue. People engaged in true dialogue may or may not come to agreement. Their primary goal is mutual understanding. It’s a difference worth noting. (After all, if agreement is going to be reached, it must be preceded by understanding.)

Let me illustrate with an example from my early career as a journalist. I was assigned to write a series of articles on prostitution and drug traffic. Naturally, this involved interviews with people who worked in those unsavory rackets. The local crime commission helped me line up sources who had information I needed. (With these kinds of interviews, for safety reasons as well as to protect my reputation, I always had another reporter accompany me.)

One of my sources was a young prostitute named Cindy. I interviewed her on several occasions because she helped corroborate (and in some instances contradict) the information I received from other sources.

The first two or three times I interviewed Cindy she seemed reticent and even shy, not qualities I’d expect of someone in her line of work. But by our fourth interview she began to open up and talk more freely. Then she turned the tables and asked me a question: “Do you notice that I’m more willing to talk with you now?” I acknowledged that I did indeed notice, and I asked her why. “Because you finally stopped judging me,” she said. “Now you’re finally trying to understand me. I don’t expect you to agree with what I do, I just want you to try to understand how I arrived where I am.”

That simple statement from a scared young prostitute taught me as much about true dialogue as anything I later heard in graduate school. I didn’t think I had been “judging” Cindy in a holier-than-thou way, but I’d certainly felt sorry for her. She didn’t want sympathy. She wanted empathy. She was willing to talk openly, but only if I listened to understand rather than to judge.

Now, another point of education from my early years as a journalist. At The Dallas Times Herald my editor was Jim Lehrer. You likely knew him later as the anchor of PBS’s award-winning news broadcast. Or you might remember him as the moderator of a dozen presidential debates, an experience he once described as “walking down the blade of a knife.”

Jim was a meticulous editor, well attuned to the nuances of good communication, and a wonderfully insightful mentor. One day he walked over to my desk in the newsroom and started a conversation about interviews. Bear in mind, I was an investigative reporter, not the art critic. By definition, investigative reporters ask tough questions, and the people they interview are often—shall we say?—less than eager to chat with reporters.

Jim: Tell me about your interviews.

Rodger: Well, I do a lot of them. Specifically, what do you want to know?

Jim: How do you prepare?

Rodger: When I get an assignment I make a list of likely sources, I prepare a preliminary inventory of questions, then I make appointments to talk with some of the sources and simply show up unannounced to talk with others. I first try to talk with the people I suspect have the most pertinent information I’m seeking, then I talk with other people to corroborate or contradict that earlier information. I continue this process until I’m satisfied I have valid data on which to base a story.”

Jim: Okay, let’s say you’re in an interview and I’m a fly on the wall. What would I see and hear?

Rodger: I’ll ask a question. The source will give me an answer. Then I’ll ask another question.

At this point, Jim made a sound like a buzzer going off on a TV game show. “Wait a second,” he said, raising his hands in a “time out” gesture. “You said you ask a question. The other person answers. Then you ask another question.”

Rodger: What’s the problem with that? The purpose of interviews is to gather information. The only way to get answers is to ask questions.

Jim: Don’t be too quick to believe that the only way to get answers is to ask questions. Another way is to listen slowly.

Jim then taught me a behavior that has served me well for the subsequent five decades. He urged me to ask a good question, listen attentively to the answer, and then count silently to five before asking another question. At first that suggestion seemed silly. I argued that five seconds would seem like an eternity to wait after someone responds to a question. Then it occurred to me. Of course it would seem like an eternity, because our natural tendency is to fill a void of silence with sound, usually that of our own voice.

Jim: If you resist the temptation to respond too quickly to the answer, you’ll discover something almost magical. The other person will either expand on what he’s already said, or he’ll go in a different direction. Either way, he’s expanding his response and you get a clearer view into his head and heart.

I was scheduled for a round of interviews that day and Jim asked me to try the silently-count-to-five approach and let him know how it worked for me. Later that evening I returned to the newsroom and Jim motioned me toward his desk. I knew what he wanted, and I was pleased to give him a five-word report: “I never got past three!”

Giving other people sufficient psychological breathing room— even those who weren’t very eager to talk with a reporter—seemed to work wonders. When I bridled my natural impatience to “get on with it,” they seemed more willing to disclose, explore, and even to be a bit vulnerable. When I treated the interview more as a conversation with a purpose than as a sterile interrogation, the tone of the exchange softened. It was now just two people talking, not a news reporter mining for data like a dentist extracting teeth.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not trying to equate dialogue with a news reporter’s interviewing approach. But I am suggesting that listening with empathy requires patience. It requires a willingness to allow the other person to take the conversation in fresh directions (serendipity can pay dividends). It requires letting go of your own needs and focusing on the other person’s needs. It requires mindful attention to the subtleties of tone, mood, temperament, and the spirit of the moment.

It’s all about listening to understand rather than to control or to coerce.

Don’t miss out!  To request your free CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP” book simply click HERE to provide Dr. Duncan with your mailing address. 

Rodger Dean Duncan

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Rodger Dean Duncan is an award-winning and bestselling author, consultant, executive coach, and trainer who is widely known for his work in organizational performance and leadership.
He’s founder of Duncan Worldwide, a consulting practice with clients ranging from cabinet officers in two White House administrations to senior leaders at corporations in more than a dozen industries. In addition to teaching at three major universities, Duncan served in senior positions at two Fortune 100 companies. His work has been featured in major media including The Washington Post, Fast Company, Inc., and PBS. He has keynoted conferences in many industries, and he writes a regular column for Forbes.com, a platform that reaches 75 million readers each month.

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